Panel from Modesty Blaise: Million Dollar Game, by Peter O’Donnell and Enric Badia Romero (Titan Books, 2011)
From Oxfam in Nottingham.
Film history from an alternate universe…
" The Modesty Blaise film series, currently celebrating its 50th anniversary, has left an indelible mark on the British film landscape. The hallmarks of the series – the exotic locations, the weapons, gadgets and vehicles, the animated opening titles accompanied by John Barry’s inimitable ‘Modesty Blaise Theme’ – have become iconic for generations of film audiences. And, at the heart of it all, lies the character of Modesty – mysterious, compassionate, elegant and deadly, the self-made woman who built and then abandoned a criminal empire, the freelance agent for the British government, who has combatted kidnappers, murderers, psychopaths and spies, always alongside her trusted right-hand man Willie Garvin. Modesty is one of British fiction’s greatest creations, and the women who have played her across 24 feature films will be forever inextricably linked with the part.
Beginning in 1964 with ‘Modesty Blaise’ and continuing on until 1967’s ‘I, Lucifer’ , the first woman to take on the part was Diana Rigg. A British stage actress who had spent many of her formative years in India, Rigg was a relative unknown when she auditioned for the part. But her ability to combine Modesty’s poise and elegance with the more action-oriented elements of the role convinced the producers that she could pull it off. Cast alongside her as Willie was Michael Caine – author Peter O’Donnell’s original model for the character – whose Cockney charm combined with a hooded-eyed coldness made him the perfect fit for the knife-expert Garvin. Rigg and Caine made a thoroughly convincing double act and set the tone for the series – and many fans believe that they have never been bettered. However, Rigg disliked the publicity which was a key element of being such an iconic screen figure, and after four films announced she was leaving. Caine, who was now being offered Hollywood parts, also decided to call it a day and for a time it was thought that the series would come to an end. But producer Harry Saltzman had other ideas and plans were set in motion to replace both Rigg and Caine and to continue the series.
1968’s ‘A Taste For Death’ is often hailed as a high watermark for the series, at least in terms of the filmmaking. Tightly written and directed, with a great plot and interesting villains (Dirk Bogarde as Gabriel and former wrestler André René Roussimoff as the monstrous Simon Delicata), the only problems lay with the central casting. Rigg’s replacement Claudia Cardinale – though on paper a strong choice for the role – failed to generate the expected chemistry with Terence Stamp (a close friend of Caine’s whom he recommended for the role) as Garvin. Audiences, too, were slow to warm to Cardinale as a replacement for the iconic Rigg. For her part, Cardinale found the prospect of being tied down to a single role to be stultifying and when the offer came to work with Sergio Leone on ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’ she declined the option for a second Blaise film.
With scripts already written, a hasty plan B was concocted, which saw Rigg return, this time partnered with Stamp, for 1969’s ‘The Impossible Virgin’. More camp in tone than previous entries, the film was a financial success but only cemented Rigg’s resolve to leave Modesty behind.
Another new Blaise was sought, one who could take the series into the 70s with a renewed vigour. 1971’s ‘The Hell Makers” saw the debut of English actress Jaqueline Bisset as Modesty, with the relatively unknown John Thaw as Garvin. Over the next 12 years and seven films – from ‘The Silver Mistress’ to ‘Death In Slow Motion’, Bisset and Thaw took the Blaise series to ever-more glossy heights. And though some fans mourned the loss of the cool 60s detachment of Rigg and Caine and its replacement with a more knockabout style, the globe-hopping adventures of the Bisset years, full of outrageous stunts and fights kept the series firmly at the forefront of British cinema.
By the early 80s however, the series seemed to have run out of steam. The excesses of the 70s era now seemed a little tired and Bisset even admitted that she was occasionally ‘just going through the motions.’ After ‘Death In Slow Motion’ (1982), both Bisset and Thaw announced they were leaving the roles.
There was a hiatus of almost five years until Saltzman, determined not to let the lucrative series slip into obsolescence found his new Modesty in English actress Amanda Donohoe, fresh from making a mark in Nicolas Roeg’s Castaway. Partnered with Ray Winstone as Garvin, Donohoe’s debut in the role ‘Dead Man’s Handle’ saw the series take a more stripped-down and serious approach, in stark contrast to the Bisset years. Although hailed for its grittiness, the series seemed to lose a little of the magic of what made Modesty Blaise so iconic, and the hinting of a romantic relationship developing between Modesty and Willie saw long-time fans up in arms. After one more film, 1989’s ‘A Better Day To Die’, Donohoe was released from her contract.
Another lengthy hiatus ensued. Then, in 1994, Blaise returned – this time in the form of Welsh actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, a long-time fan of the character, who had lobbied for the role. Zeta-Jones combined the humour of the 70s with a more ‘classic’ Blaise feel, reinvigorating the series. With Mark Strong as a different, more cerebral Willie Garvin, the first comeback film ‘The Killing Ground’ was a big hit and set the stage for four more outings, ending with 2003’s ‘Death Trap’, after which Zeta-Jones announced she was leaving, citing the wish to spend more time with her family (the Blaise shoots were notoriously long, complex and demanding affairs.)
In 2007 the most recent actress to take on the role of Modesty was announced. Eva Green, the first French actress to take the role, was seen by some as a risky choice, but her first outing, the deliberately back-to-basics ‘La Machine’ saw her win over her critics with a perfectly judged performance. Self-possessed, fearless, ruthless when required, but still perfectly poised and elegant, Green made the role her own. And with rising British actor Daniel Craig as an able and convincing Willie Garvin, the Blaise films have moved from strength to strength – 2012’s ‘The Dark Angels’ becoming the most profitable of the entire series. With Green and Craig contracted for at least two more films, the Modesty Blaise series seems set to run on well past its golden anniversary, cementing its status as one of British cinema’s crowning jewels.”
Oh if only…
Jim Holdaway: preliminary drawings for Modesty Blaise (1962)
A 2002 Dick Giordano commission of Modesty Blaise, produced for Terry Austin & published in 2003’s Dick Giordano Changing Comics One Day At A Time.
Modesty Blaise by Robert McGinnis
Fawcett Crest Books (February, 1969)
Modesty Blaise by Steve Epting
There is quite a collection in print at the moment :D. I don’t think they need to be read in order either aside from Vol. 1 if you’re new to Modesty.
This was a head sketch of a character I’m actually not familiar with at all (until now) pulp comic character from the 60s, Modesty Blaise. Gonna have to track down some of her books, she sounds really interesting.